By Tony Grossi
Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, 1 p.m., in Cleveland Browns Stadium
Last game: Lost to Baltimore Ravens, 13-10, Nov. 18, in Baltimore.
Coach: Mike Tomlin, 66-32, sixth year.
Series record: Steelers lead, 64-56 (counting postseason) and have won four in a row.
Last meeting: Steelers won, 13-9, Jan. 1, in Pittsburgh.
League rankings: Offense is 17th overall (17th rushing, 13th passing), defense is first (fourth rushing, first passing) and turnover differential is minus-3.
Offensive overview: QB Charlie Batch is a much better fit for the Todd Haley offense than Byron Leftwichin place of indomitable starter Ben Roethlisberger. Haley has removed the big pass play from the playbook and substituted quick, underneath throws as the base of the pass offense. While this strategy may have reduced burner Mike Wallace to a glorified possession receiver (12.3-yard average), it has effectively spread the ball around. Four players have over 400 yards receiving, including TE Heath Miller. The backfield has been run by committee. Tomlin will stick with the hot hand, and Jonathan Dwyer (410 yards) and Isaac Redman (300) each has had 100-yard rushing games. With Rashard Mendenhall now recovered from 2011 knee surgery, Tomlin wants to prime him for a playoff run, taking playing time from, most likely, Redman.
Defensive overview: Sacks are way down (18), mostly because injuries have slowed the pass rush ability of stalwarts James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, disruptive safety Troy Polamalu has missed virtually eight games with a torn calf muscle and takeaways have been scarce, the second-fewest in the NFL. But through the scheming of coordinator Dick LeBeau, the unit has maintained its usual spot near or at the top of the league rankings. The three-man front remains stout against the run, but a twist this year is the secondary has been LeBeau’s strongest unit. The Steelers haven’t given up 200 passing yards in five games. The emerging star in the secondary is first-time starting CB Keenan Lewis, whose 19 passes defensed are among the league leaders.
Special teams overview: Kicker Shaun Suisham is 21 of 22 on field goals with a long of 52 yards, and has 15 touchbacks on kickoffs. Punter Drew Butler is 27th in gross average (43.6) and 28th in net (37.2). Pint-sized KR Chris Rainey has a 27.8 return average with a long of 68 yards. He may double as punt returner if Antonio Brown can't play. The coverage units have been solid, but allowed a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown Sunday night to Jacoby Jones.
Players to watch:
1. QB Charlie Batch: In his 15th NFL year at age 37, he is seldom-used but reliable when forced to play. He is 5-2 as a spot starter for the Steelers, and presided over a 27-0 win over St. Louis in his last appearance on Dec. 24.
2. WR Mike Wallace: His over-top speed has been neutralized by coordinator Todd Haley’s reluctance to throw deep, but he can separate on a crossing route and go the distance. He leads a balance stable of receivers with 46 catches for 565 yards and six TDs.
3. LB James Harrison: A shadow of himself since coming back from two knee procedures, he may not be totally right until next season. But his head-hunting presence is always felt in Browns games. Mohamed Massaquoi, Josh Cribbs and Colt McCoy have been knocked out of games by his helmet hits.
Injury report: QB Ben Roethlisberger (ribs, shoulder), QB Byron Leftwich (ribs, shoulder) and WR Jerricho Cotchery (ribs) are out. WR Antonio Brown (high ankle) missed the past two games and will be questionable. RB Isaac Redman (concussion) is day to day.
Small world: Linebackers coach Keith Butler held the same position with the Browns from from 1999 to ’02 … Raymond Jackson, director of player development, played for the Browns from 1999 to ’01 and then worked in the scouting department … John Mitchell, assistant head coach/defensive line coach, was Browns defensive line coach from 1991 to ’93 … Kicker Shaun Suisham competed in Browns training camp in 2010.
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 44 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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